I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Pizza is the world’s most popular fast food with Americans alone consuming three billion pizzas a year. The dish can trace its heritage back to the Neolithic age of 12,000 years ago, but its form has changed dramatically since then. Many creative things have been done to this simple pie in search of grabbing a larger slice of the market.
The Pie of Naples
Sometime in the later years of the 18th century, vendors appeared on the streets of Naples. In large boxes they carried flatbread topped with lard, garlic, and salt, and would sell different sized slices to customers depending on their budget. It was a cheap food consumed by poor people dressed in rags called Lazzaroni (the name came from the Bible’s impoverished Lazarus).
Then, the vendors started to get imaginative and added cheese made from horse’s milk, basil, and small fish. Tomatoes, recently arrived from Peru, were added to the pie, so it was beginning to take the form with which we are familiar today.
For many decades, the pie (pizza in Italian) was scorned by the upper classes as fit only for the common herd. Samuel Morse, he of the telegraphic code, tried pizza in 1831 and expressed his verdict in somewhat negative terms. In his view pizza was a “species of the most nauseating cake . . . covered over with slices of pomodoro or tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients, it altogether looks like a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer.”
Pizza Receives Royal Approval
In 1861, Italy became a unified country as most of the kingdoms and states on the peninsular joined under King Victor Immanuel II of the House of Savoy. He was succeeded by King Umberto I in 1878.
Umberto and his wife, Queen Margherita, decided to tour their realm in a grand procession in 1889. Everywhere they went there were banquets and the royal couple grew tired of the French cuisine on offer. When they arrived in Naples, they expressed a desire for some local grub.
Raffaele Esposito was tasked with satisfying the regal taste buds. He was the owner and chef of a tavern known as Pizzeria di Pietro e basta cosi (Pietro’s Pizzeria and that’s enough). The story goes that he created three pizzas, but the one with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil was her royal highness’s favourite. It was christened the pizza margherita, and is on every pizzeria’s menu today.
The royal approval changed everything. Foodies, who previously heaped contempt on the humble pizza, now found it to be a princely dish worthy of the most discriminating tastes.
Pizza Crosses the Atlantic
Italian immigrants in the late 19th century brought pizza with them to North America, but it remained largely within their community.
There is some debate about which was the first pizzeria to open in the United States but the honour is usually accorded to Lombardi’s in New York City in 1897. But, there is another claimant to the accolade of being the father of American pizzas. Filippo Milone was an Italian immigrant who started several pizza bakeries and then sold them. He may well have been behind Lombardi’s.
Pizza Takes Off in the U.S.
However, pizza remained a niche food unknown to most Americans. World War II changed that.
American soldiers taking part in the 1943 invasion of Italy discovered pizza. They like it; they liked it a lot. When they got home they wanted pizza. Hanna Miller (American Heritage) writes that “Veterans ranging from the lowliest private to Dwight D. Eisenhower talked up pizza,” and the restaurant industry responded robustly.
The pie migrated out of the exclusive hands of people of Italian ancestry, it also moved away from its national origins and became Americanized. Sliced tomatoes became a tomato paste onto which the cheese and other ingredients were piled. The garlic content was dialled back and pepperoni arrived.
In 1953, The New York Times reported that “The highly seasoned pizza with its tough crust and tomato topping is such a gastronomical craze that the open pie threatens the pre-eminence of the hot dog and hamburger.” Three years later, there were 20,000 pizzerias in America. Then, the chains began to open.
Pizza Hut is recognized as the first pizza chain. It was opened in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, by college students Frank and Dan Carney. A less Italian background would be hard to find.
As of 2020, there were 18,703 Pizza Hut outlets around the world. Some authorities say there are 61,000 pizza parlours in the United States alone, others say it’s 76,000.
Useless Facts About Pizza
- Inexplicably, the least favourite pizza topping in America is anchovies.
- Foodler is a food delivery company. It says the most popular pizza toppings are, in order: pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, sausage, bacon, extra cheese, black olives, green peppers, pineapple, and spinach. Strangely, Brussels sprouts, sardines, and tofu didn’t make the cut.
- In the United States, pizza is consumed at the rate of 350 slices per second.
- On average, each American will eat around 6,000 slices of pizza in their lifetime.
More Useless Facts
- Sam Panopoulos, a Greek-Canadian invented the Hawaiian pizza (ham and pineapple toppings) in 1962. Some unsophisticated people think it’s an abomination.
- In 2001, Pizza Hut delivered a six-inch pizza to the International Space Station.
- Every year, thousands of people gather in Las Vegas for the International Pizza Expo, with 500 companies exhibiting their wares.
- In Salerno, Italy three chefs will come to your home and create a Louis XIII pizza for you. It has three types of caviar, seven cheeses, Norwegian lobster, and a few other exotic ingredients. Served with the most expensive booze imaginable, it serves two. Budget priced at $12,000.
- Worldwide, the pizza business is said to be worth $128 billion.
- The first frozen pizzas arrived in grocery stores in 1962, but mostly, they tasted like the packaging they came in.
- Philadelphia is home to the Museum of Pizza Culture.
- The leading day for pizza consumption in the U.S. is Super Bowl Sunday.
- One slice of a 14-inch pepperoni pizza delivers 313 calories, 32 percent of a daily sodium allowance, and 28 percent of saturated fats.
- There are several claimants, including Yogi Berra, to the story of when being asked if the customer wanted his pizza cut into six or eight slices replied, “Better make it six, I couldn’t possibly eat eight.”
- According to tasteatlas.com, the world’s favourite pizza is a thin crust beauty known as pizza Napoletana, which “is made with just a few simple ingredients and prepared in only two variations—marinara, the basic Neapolitan pizza topped with a tomato-based sauce flavored with garlic and oregano, and margherita, which is topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves, a delicious combination whose colors are said to represent the Italian flag.”
- The restaurant where the margherita pizza was allegedly created is still in existence in its original location. It’s now called Brandi.
- “A History of Pizza.” Alexander Lee, History Today, July 7, 2018.
- “The Pie That Conquered America - The First Pizzeria in the United States.” Pizza.com, undated.
- “American Pie.” Hanna Miller, American Heritage, April/May 2006.
- “Pizza Hut.” Yum.com, undated.
- “Top 10 most Popular Pizzas in the World.” Tasteatlas.com, October 5, 2020.
- “The Father of American Pizza Is Not Who We Thought He Was.” Jason Daley, Smithsonian Magazine, February 8, 2019.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor